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The best college commencement speech

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  • Liberal Democrat
    Democrat
    Colorado Springs, CO
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    May is the month that we usually attend graduations and listen to commencement speeches. Barack and Michelle Obama are always in demand for giving those speeches as are other politicians and noteworthy people that have attained "success" in their lives...people that we will choose to emulate. All those speeches seem to sound the same or have similar messages for young people venturing out into the world. However, there is one that I found that is a bit different. It resonated more with me...and perhaps to many of you that write in this forum.

    If you want to read a very good commencement speech about how we think, I submit to you the speech that David Foster Wallace gave to the graduation class at Kenyon College in 2005.

    THIS IS WATER

    After you read his speech, you can then read about Wallace in this New York Times article...and reflect:

    David Foster Wallace, Influential Writer, Dies at 46
  • Liberal Democrat
    Democrat
    Colorado Springs, CO
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    Okay I know these kind of speeches will not grab someone's attention very often, so I'll extract a few lines and elaborate. Quoting Wallace:

    "True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

    "The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

    "This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

    "I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about "the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master".


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    For myself and perhaps some of the "seniors" that write in this website, I can relate to the humorous anecdotal experiences that Wallace describes in his speech. And now having gone through those life experiences (I am 66 years old) I sit here in my retirement days having educated myself on all the key issues of the day, and done all that critical thinking stuff...but after all that, it is still just so hard to not be arrogant and contemptuous about those on the right that display such selfishness and willful ignorance.

    And for the new graduates, how can you think critically about these issues when you graduate with a mountain of debt and the first and foremost thing on your mind is to make money after having lived as a "pauper student" for so long?

    Near the end of his speech, Wallace talks about "real freedom...that is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."

    Unfortunately for Wallace, he could not cope with his own reality. He suffered from depression and committed suicide three years after giving his wonderful speech. He did it by hanging himself. Nevertheless, I'll put that as a reminder that we are all vulnerable to our own thinking, and accept Wallace's words of wisdom...the importance of having an "awareness of what is so real and essential"...what is "so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over."

    RIP David Foster Wallace.
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  • Liberal Democrat
    Democrat
    Colorado Springs, CO
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    This was not surprising I suppose. Five years ago, I shared David Foster Wallace's excellent commencement speech (my viewpoint) and it got zero interest on this website. Now five years later the only interest is from someone digging it out to sell stuff to help with homework. Ha.

    In a sense, we are all fish in water...

  • Independent
    Ft.myers, FL
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    Schmidt Wrote:

    This was not surprising I suppose. Five years ago, I shared David Foster Wallace's excellent commencement speech (my viewpoint) and it got zero interest on this website. Now five years later the only interest is from someone digging it out to sell stuff to help with homework. Ha.

    In a sense, we are all fish in water...

    Schmidt; may be now you understand this country; yes a very weird country indeed; especially if you come from abroad and are used to a different mentality as well government(s) without all the craziness as here.
  • Strongly Liberal Democrat
    Democrat
    Pensacola, FL
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    "contemptuous about those on the right that display such selfishness and willful ignorance."

    Do you think they have a choice? Characteristics common in a defined geographical area are would seem to indicate some powerful influence over choice.

  • Independent
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    Schmidt, I hadn’t seen the thread or perhaps I did and simply passed it by.

    I read the speech out loud to Mrs. Bird this morning. It certainly applies to the vast majority of people. I would say that I was like the young fish many times although having grown up being teased and occasionally bullied I would like to think that I engaged in thinking perhaps more often.

    I did notice two things that jumped into my head after reading the speech.

    Imo, Trump suffers from at the very least worship of money. He can never have enough. I remember reading somewhere that the utility or enjoyment of money decreases as the amount you have increases. The last million you make doesn’t make you more happy than the first million. I would also say Trump has tremendous psychological and emotional issues after reading David Cay Johnston’s book on Trump.

    The other thing is that capitalism focuses on precisely the self-centered worldview. Adam Smith was a moralist which neoclassical economists and conservative politician either don’t know or choose to ignore. Capitalism as practiced today is without moral center. It is actually amoral at best and immoral at worst.

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    The trouble with modern capitalism is it made enough money to control the regulators. It would be the same as if the president had control of the legislative and judicial branches of government .
  • Center Left
    Independent
    Central, FL
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    I finally read this and enjoyed his perspectives. I shared it on social media. Very true with a capital T.

    Good stuff. Thanks.